At 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, a wave of applause rippled through the House of Representatives.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had begun making her way up the center aisle, clasping the left hand of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) in her right, pausing every now and then to give an embrace or a kiss on the cheek to the dozens of lawmakers who had come to wish her farewell.
By the end of the day, Giffords would no longer be a member of the House.
A year after that fateful day when a gunman opened fire at a Tucson “Congress On Your Corner” event, killing six and wounding 13 including Giffords, the Arizona Democrat had accomplished a goal that has eluded most every lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
She had brought a brief moment of unity to one of the most bitterly partisan and contentious Congresses in modern history.
It was evident in the House’s 408-to-zero vote Wednesday morning on the last measure authored by Giffords, a bill that would give federal law enforcement greater authority in combating cross-border drug trafficking.
Giffords and a fellow Arizona lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Flake (R), this week introduced the measure, which is a new version of a Giffords bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in 2010 but was not taken up by the Senate.
It was also evident in a first for the House chamber on Wednesday: One morning after sitting in the first lady’s box for President Obama’s State of the Union address, Giffords’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was seated with Giffords’s mother in House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) box on the opposite side of the chamber for the farewell ceremony.
According to House Press Gallery staff, it was the first time ever that a guest had sat one night in the president’s box and the following morning in the box of a speaker of the opposing party.
And the unity was clear in the emotional tributes made by members of both parties to Giffords, her family, and staff, including the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Pia Carusone, who sat in the row behind the lawmaker for Wednesday morning’s farewell.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of Giffords’s closest friends in Congress, called the lawmaker “the brightest star this Congress has ever seen.”
“She has brought the word ‘dignity’ to new heights,” Pelosi said, as Wasserman Schultz, seated next to Giffords at the front of the Democratic side of the chamber, dabbed at her eyes.
House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, praised Giffords and her family and thanked the congresswoman’s staff for their “exceptional service, dedication and, yes, courage.”
“Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’s strength against all odds serves and will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us,” he said.
And House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) paid tribute to Giffords by noting that the congresswoman was injured while taking part in a constituent event in her home district, one of the cornerstones of American democracy.
“We have young men and women brave on the fields of Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots in the world,” Hoyer said. “They are fighting for freedom and democracy. And too many of them are injured on those fields. Our beloved colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, was injured on the field in the exercise of that democracy.”
Hoyer continued that Giffords, in being injured, “has become an example for us, for all Americans – indeed, for all the world – of courage, of clarity and purpose, of grace, of responsibility, of a sense of duty, which she exercises to this day.”
Then, flanked by about a dozen other lawmakers, Giffords, Wasserman Schultz, and Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.) made their way to the well of the House, where Wasserman Schultz – who was with Giffords when she opened her eyes for the first time after the Tucson shooting -- read the congresswoman’s resignation letter aloud.
“I know, being able to be Gabby’s voice today, that knowing her as well as I do, that the one thing that has not been said is that Gabby wants her constituents to know – her constituents who she loves so much in southern Arizona – that it has been the greatest professional privilege of her life to represent them ... and that this is only a pause in that public service, and that she will return one day,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Before going on to read Giffords’s letter, she added that “the most important thing to remember is that no matter what we argue about here on this floor or in this country, there is nothing more important than family and friendship.”
Giffords, aided by Wasserman Schultz, made her way to the rostrum, where she embraced Boehner and submitted her resignation letter to the speaker. The two clasped their hands and raised them into the air as the entire chamber, already on its feet and applauding, let out a loud cheer.
Boehner did not deliver remarks; his only public comment came in the form of a reminder to members about the dress code in the House. But he could be seen whispering something into Giffords’s ear shortly before she was led back down from the rostrum, and moments later, the lawmaker was swarmed once again by well-wishers, including a little girl who ran up the aisle on the Democratic side and embraced her.
After her anti-trafficking measure had sailed through the House, Giffords, Wasserman Schultz, Schweikert and other lawmakers made their way from the chamber to a private meeting with Pelosi and others.
Among the dozen or so people who greeted the congresswoman in the hallway just outside the chamber, flinging their arms around her and giving her kisses on the cheek, were a Capitol elevator operator and a Democratic cloakroom attendant.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” said Giffords as she hugged the cloakroom attendant, Ella Terry.
“I’m so proud of you,” a teary Terry said. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I miss you,” Giffords responded.
Asked later how she felt about reuniting with Giffords, Terry described the congresswoman’s recovery as “a miracle from God.”
“She’s as sweet as she could be,” Terry said. “She always wanted her toast. When they said her first word was ‘toast’ – and my sister’s been keeping up with her down south – I said, ‘Oh yeah, she must’ve wanted some toast, because that’s what she would ask us to do.’ She’d say, ‘Can you fix toast for me?’ And we’d say, ‘Sure, you can get your toast.’”
Schweikert said as he made his way down the hallway that it had been “a flood and mix of emotion” bidding farewell to his Arizona colleague.
“She has the sparkle in her eyes. She has that grin,” he said. “You could almost feel a great sense of sadness and joy, you know, that she was able to be there. But at the same time, you just have to sort of digest what happened and what she’s been through over a year. We see some great things, and you realize the miracle she is.”
Does he think that Giffords might one day return to Congress?
“Do not underestimate her,” he said. “I could almost see it in her eyes that this is just a temporary hiatus.”